French Open: Alcaraz, the boy who could be king

19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz has taken the tennis world by storm this year with four titles. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS) - Rafael Nadal is locked in an all-time Grand Slam battle with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic going into the French Open but both could end up being upstaged by teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz.

Nadal, the record 13-time title-winner on the Parisian red clay, has not been at his usual unstoppable best as he nurses a chronic foot injury that flared up again in the build-up to Roland Garros.

The Australian Open champion suffered early exits in Madrid and Rome, with his most recent tournament win back in February.

Counting out the wounded Spaniard, however, comes with a risk warning as his comeback win from two sets down over Russia's Daniil Medvedev at this year's Australian Open final proved.

Nadal's astounding win meant he became the first male player to reach 21 Majors, pulling one ahead of Roger Federer and Djokovic on the all-time list.

Serbia's Djokovic, who was deported from Melbourne on the eve of the Australian Open following his refusal to be vaccinated for Covid-19, is desperate to triumph in Paris and pull level with Nadal's record haul.

After his turbulent start to the year, Djokovic appears to be back on track and in form, clinching the title in Rome last week with a straight- set win over world No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Djokovic is also no stranger to comebacks on the big stage, winning the title in Paris last year after battling from two sets down to outlast the Greek.

Tsitsipas, who thrives on this surface having won his last three titles on clay, has long been tipped as a potential Slam winner and came agonisingly close last year. But like Djokovic and Nadal, he will be looking over his shoulder at the 19-year-old Alcaraz, who looks set to jump the queue as the standout player of the new generation of tennis stars.

Alcaraz has taken the tennis world by storm this year with four titles, including in Miami and Madrid, and will arrive in Paris established as one of the title favourites despite his youth.

The big-smiling Spaniard, a qualifier only 12 months ago, may look stunned by his progress this year but he shows no signs or interest in slowing down as he storms up the world rankings.

"Yes, I am ready to win a Grand Slam and to go for it," said the world No. 6, who beat both Nadal and Djokovic en route to the Madrid title earlier in May this month.

"It is a goal for me this year, to try to get my first Grand Slam. Let's see what is going to happen at Roland Garros."

Since the start of the Open era, four of the seven first-time men's singles winners of the French Open have been teenagers, so the omens look good.

If Alcaraz is to join the likes of Michael Chang and Mats Wilander, who were both 17 when they won in 1989 and 1982 respectively, he will have to do it the hard way after being drawn in the same half of the clay-court tournament as Djokovic and Nadal on Thursday.

Djokovic and Nadal, ranked fifth, are seeded to meet as early as the quarter-finals, while Alcaraz could face either one in the last four.

Djokovic is looking forward to the challenge. He said: "I am very motivated to play my best tennis. In Paris, I always play very strong. Last year, it was the toughest major that I had won.

"I'm going to Paris with confidence and good feelings about my chances. With the rankings and the way I've been playing in the last few weeks, I'd rate myself as one of the favourites."

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